Critical Contours

September 8, 2009

By Douglas Haddow, PBLKS

In his essay You May, in reference to the relative perceptions of where the Balkans begin and end, Slavoj Zizek states:

“We are dealing with an imaginary cartography, which projects onto the real landscape its own shadowy ideological antagonisms, in the same way that the conversion-symptoms of the hysterical subject in Freud project onto the physical body the map of another, imaginary anatomy.”

Nowhere is Zizek’s imaginary cartography more relevant than in the lives of those who live within the plastic borders of Serbia and Palestine, two of the most problematically defined nations on the planet. In these circumstances, where external pressure and internal conflict come together to create a seemingly impossible situation, individual perception is more relevant than political status. Inspired by a need for a more expressive understanding of the Palestinian and Serbian experiences, Dutch designer Annelys de Vet invited artists, photographers and designers from both countries to re-map and personalize the contours of their respective landscapes.

The end product was A Subjective Atlas of Palestine and A Subjective Atlas of Serbia – two intimate, engaging, depressing and often hilarious books that explore Serbia and Palestine from each contributor’s individual perspective.

PBLKS: Did you have any intentions when working on these two projects?

de Vet: To be honest; many intentions. The publications are ‘mapping’ a country, region or political entity in a personal way by the inhabitants themselves. They are invited to map their country in their own way; be it political, critical, culinary, romantic, negative or positive. Personal involvement is always a starting point, with the aim to produce human, unconventional and honest images. With the tools of graphic design and the stories of the contributors – alternative views are developed towards political entities that lack a nuanced representation in the media.

PBLKS:  What interests you about subjective cartography?

de Vet: If you look at cartography critically one can say that all cartography is subjective, even though it seems to represent objectivity. By stating directly that the atlas is subjective, one can come closer to the context of everyday life in a certain region. A story is never complete and always more layered than at first glance, especially when dealing with the notion of identity. With the kind of mapping that is done in these subjective atlases you can experience the presence of the bigger story, without explanation. Personal maps also make it easier to identify yourself with the contributors. In the case of the Palestinian atlas that was of utmost importance. Palestinians are often shown in the western media as aggressors and in that role they are a ‘them’ and never a ‘we’. Looking at their subjective atlas, you can see the contributors are just like you and me but living in a terribly complicated society.

PBLKS: Now that Google has made the whole earth instantly accessible for anyone with a laptop, what is the future of the atlas?

de Vet: It’s a great future for the notion of the atlas (in any form, not printed per se). There is a general growing interest in graphs, charts and mapping data, also because there is so much more (and new) data available at the moment (partly thanks to Google). By visualizing data one can discover (or manipulate) new patterns that provide new information. Those graphs need to be ‘mapped’ again. Not by a search-engine, but by an editor – which brings us back to the atlas.

PBLKS: Why do you think areas like Serbia and Palestine are so often misrepresented in western media?

de Vet: You could write many books answering this question. And for both countries it’s an individual answer. But in general I would say that the press-agencies with the most capital (and the best educated staff) can influence the news the best and these agencies aren’t located in Palestine nor Serbia.

PBLKS:  Are there any interesting developments occurring right now in media at large that inspire/depress/provoke you?

de Vet: Many many many. In Dutch politics for instance: I cannot understand how populism is so powerful in terms of placing irrelevant topics on the agenda, and in doing so killing the nuance and curiosity out of public debate. Mass media feeds this tendency at full speed, unable to avoid it by following the principles of journalism. We cannot stay objective anymore, but have to speak out and doubt at the same time.


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